After fifty years of uninterrupted operations, the Roman campus of Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut), where I teach, had sent all overseas students home and moved all teaching online by early March. The summer semester has already been cancelled, while starting the Fall programme on time seems very unlikely. The same happened elsewhere in Italy.
In the first lesson this year (on 3 February, when the coronavirus outbreak was confined in China and nobody expected a global shutdown) I told my American students that Hartford was established 50 years ago because of globalization: affordable transport, easier communication, and mass tourism that transformed the city to meet the needs of international users against local inhabitants.
Now, with the latest pandemic, the greatest threat after terrorism, that model of globalization (which had for the first time made travelling for a large proportion of the world population a “cool” and realistic choice) seems to have reached a critical point. Migration and mobility, a life-saving necessity for the masses for centuries and then a pleasure only a few decades ago, is now seen as a nuisance and a problem. Think of the current world views of economic migrants and political refugees. To my American students, in that unfortunately prophetic lecture, I also said that the intergenerational transmission of culture will be seriously tested by events like the coronavirus outbreak, which shatter basic forms of social relations.
The Roman campus of Trinity College was based on a very simple principle: by spending a semester in Rome, for the simple reason of being here, American students would immerse themselves in Italian culture. The social connection would activate a mutuality of being (American, European, Italian and Roman) that makes cultural transfer possible. This principle could materialize only if travelling is repeated, leading to a snowballing effect: the freshmen registering in Hartford follow the paths of the sophomores and juniors who tell them about the beauty of life on the campus abroad. This chain of emulation has been a norm for decades, but it can be broken easily. Next year’s Hartford freshmen will have no older students to emulate, and if the programmes abroad are still offered, they will have to find the moral resources on their own to consider it still enjoyable.
If we consider relations between generations, it became even more obvious that changes in our mobility implies a reconsideration of the mutuality of being and reciprocal responsibilities.
In the Italian welfare diamond (state-market-family) , family is the centre. A family is understood as a unit typically located on at least two houses close enough for the parents and grandparents to coordinate with each other for the management of time. It is important to note that both units are typically bought by grandparents, one for them when they got married, the other for the kids and their “independence” . It is often the grandparents, especially maternal ones in cities like Rome, who take the children to school and back home, to cook for them, and to accompany them in the many afternoon activities that middle class life seems to impose (sports, music, entertainment) . Grandparents’ daily mobility has been central to Italy’s social fabric.
Self isolation has suspended these family networks that many took for granted. But grandparents are still indispensable for the economic sustenance of many households, thanks to their pensions earned in a different geological era of Social Security . The financial transfer from the grandparents to adult parents became even more important as many face increasing financial difficulties in the prolonged shutdown. A video shows how devastated a man in Apulia felt to find the bank closed, preventing him from withdrawing his mother’s pension, which is the only income of the family. There is, in short, due to immobility a shift from a ‘sharing of being’ to a ‘sharing of having’.
We do not know how much this situation, in which forced immobility breaks the mutuality of social being, can last. But we can say with some certainty that, by the beginning of April 2020, we are fast approaching a point of unbearable stress.
Piero Vereni is Professor of Anthropology at Trinity College, Rome campus, and an Associate at the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”.
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